The Philippines are famous for diving, beaches, jeepneys, rice paddies, and bustling Southeast Asian metropolises. But Spanish colonial towns? Not so much. Which is strange in a way, because the Philippines were a Spanish colony for 333 years, and the colonial towns are there, and they’re pretty impressive. And Vigan, in northwest Luzon (the main island of the Philippines) is the best of the lot.
Vigan began life as a small trading port where Fujian Chinese traders came and settled and intermarried with Filipinos. Gold and beeswax were purchased from local traders, goods from across mainland Asia were brought and sold by the Fujian Chinese.
The Spanish colonisers arrived in 1572. Under their control Vigan became a major settlement, the largest in northern Luzon.
Vigan was a planned city. It was built in a grid pattern, as per the Leyes de Indias (Laws of the Indies), a body of laws issued by the Spanish Empire for the development of the Philippines.
Crisologo Street, Vigan
The wonderfully well preserved Crisologo Street is the historic centre of Vigan. Guidebooks will tell you that you must get up at the crack of dawn to see the street at its most tranquil.
However, while there may be less vehicular traffic about at this time, the street is completely overrun with tourists who have also been told by their guidebooks to get up at dawn, so the place is hardly tranquil.
You can sleep in, and come to Crisologo Street at 9am, and you won’t miss out on a thing.
Crisologo Street gets all the attention – and it is unquestionably the best preserved street in Vigan. The surrounding blocks are full of equally striking colonial architecture though, and also worth exploring.
In truth I probably preferred the quiet backstreets and alleyways of Vigan to its bustling Crisologo Street.
Vigan Cathedral, also known as Saint Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral, was built in 1790 atop the ruins of several older churches that either burnt down or were destroyed by earthquakes. The church is built in an architectural style known as earthquake baroque, which means the structure is low and wide and has thick walls and a lightweight roof.
The bell tower is also placed far enough away that it will not smash the church if it topples over during an earthquake.
Bantay Bell Tower
The Bantay Bell Tower is an old watchtower that – along with the church it sits beside – dates back to 1590. It was used as a watchtower against pirates in colonial times, and was used to spot invading armies during WWI and WWII.
A kalesa is a horse-drawn carriage. There are thousands of them trotting around downtown Vigan. It’s an inexpensive and enjoyable way to explore the historic city.
In 2014 Vigan was voted one of the New7Wonders Cities.
UNESCO thought Vigan special enough to give it World Heritage status. They describe it as the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia.